Monday, November 10, 2014

The Royal Regulations of 1772, part 5 - Interpreting the Regulations

In my most recent post on this blog about the Royal Regulations of 1772, I wrote that when next I returned to this subject I would begin to look at how the soldado de cuera uniforms they describe were actually understood, implemented, modified, enforced and sometimes ignored in Spain’s frontier outposts of the American Southwest and California.  I’ll start today with the uniform coat, the chupa corta.[1]


In the 18th century, when new dress regulations were submitted for approval in Spain, they were often accompanied by illustrations to show just how the uniform was meant to look.  Many of these pictures survive and are priceless documents in our understanding of the uniforms, arms and equipment of Spain’s regular and colonial forces. 


Unfortunately, there is no evidence that such a picture was ever submitted for the new presidial uniforms of 1772.  At least, none has yet been found.  Perhaps it was a lack of such an illustration that explains in part why these regulations were interpreted differently at almost every presidio.  As I’ll try to show, other factors include the regulation’s rather vague wording and the ways in which presidios acquired their uniforms.[2] 

One example of vague wording is that the 1772 regulations allowed the chupa – their uniform coat – to be made of either wool velvet (tripe) or cloth (paño). It’s likely then that some presidios had cloth coats while others, even close neighbors, could have velvet. 


The 1772 regulations also state that the chupa should be made,“con una pequeña vuelta y collarin,” which I translate as “with a small cuff and collar.”  But it’s a bit more complicated than that. 

Today, one of meanings of the Spanish word vuelta is “facing,” which for uniforms means The cuffs, collar, and lapels of a military jacket, contrasting in color with the rest of the garment.”[3]  However, this probably wasn’t how the word vuelta was defined in the 18th century and not what the regulation’s authors meant.

The Spanish Royal Academy’s 1739 dictionary gives only two definitions of vuelta that have anything to do with clothing. The first is “the adornment that is placed over the cuff of the shirt, that is a wide, folded band of thin linen or lace.”  In English, this would be called a “ruffle.” The other definition has to do with embroidery at the tops of stockings.[4]


But dictionaries, however exhaustive, can never include all of the ways a word is understood by the society that speaks and writes it.  Since the word vuelta in the 1772 regulations clearly refers to a part of the chupa and not to a shirt, I believe the authors must have meant the cuff.  Both uses would have sleeves in common, at least.  It’s much harder to see how vuelta could be translated here as “facings” because the chupa’s collar (collarin) is mentioned in the same sentence and this isn't necessary if vuelta meant facings.  Collars are part of a uniform’s facings. 

Apparently, the authors of these regulations intended that the soldado de cueras’ new uniform coats would have small cuffs and a collar, both scarlet, but not lapels (solapas), another type of military facing that's not mentioned in the regulations at all.  However, that isn’t how they were interpreted on the frontier.


In August of 1775, Colonel Hugo Oconór, commandant inspector of presidios on New Spain’s northern frontier, examined the soldiers’ uniforms at Tubac Presidio, in what is now Arizona, and was not pleased.  In his report, Oconór writes that he ordered replacement clothing for the presidio in words that are almost identical to those of the 1772 regulations except for the addition of lapels.  The soldiers were to wear “una chupa corta de tripe ó paño azul con una pequeña vuelta, solapa y collarin encarnadoa short, sleeved waistcoat of blue wool velvet or wool cloth with a small scarlet cuff, lapel and collar.  Here, at least, vuelta clearly does not mean “facing.”[5]

But it gets more complicated still.  Two years later, in 1777, Colonel Oconór issued a report compiling the results of all his presidio inspections.  In it, he states proudly that, as a result of his efforts, “The clothing that is used by that troop [i.e., the presidial cavalry] is uniform in all the provinces, and consists of a short, sleeved waistcoat of blue wool velvet or wool cloth, with a small scarlet cuff and collar . . .”  Oconór omits any mention of lapels and repeats this description in two other places in his report.  Clearly, he’s just copying the official uniform description from the regulations and not giving us the details of how these soldiers actually dressed.[6]


With such inconsistent evidence, it’s probably safest to assume that some presidios used coats with lapels, some didn’t, and that the only times we can be certain are when the use or non-use of lapels is specified by an eyewitness account.  For example, a 1779 report for the Presidio of San Antonio de Bexar in Texas lists all of the materials needed, and their costs, to fully dress and equip a soldier of that unit.  From this we know that every chupa at that outpost was to have a collar, lapels and cuffs made of second-quality scarlet cloth.[7]  On the other hand, in 1794 an order by the military governor of California stated that it was his understanding of the royal regulations that all chupas for sergeants, corporals and soldiers should be issued “with scarlet cuffs and collars only . . . omit the lapels.”  We know that this order was obeyed because in March 1795 the Presidio of Santa Barbara ordered from Mexico, “60 regulation chupas, without lapels, made of blue wool cloth from Puruagua, with cuffs and collar of second-quality scarlet wool cloth . . .” [8]

The fact is, there could never have been at any time an identical pattern uniform issued to every presidio on the frontier.  This is because there just wasn’t a standardized or “sealed" pattern for these uniforms to follow and no central manufacturer or source of supply. 

After the issue of the 1772 regulations, the presidos experimented with different systems for acquiring their uniforms, equipment and other supplies. Mostly these varied between sending a purchasing officer, called a habiltado, to Mexico with what amounted to a shopping list or else contracting with Mexican merchants annually to acquire and ship to the presidios what was needed.  Also, we know that sometimes a presidio would order uniforms readymade from a contractor in Mexico, usually in a few standard sizes which were then tailored to individuals at the presidio.  At other times, the uniforms were made at or near the presidio from materials purchased in Mexico.[9] 


The result of all these variations is that while all of the soldiers’ uniforms at any given presidio would more or less match one another, they must have looked noticeably different from those at other presidios.  Though all of them would have blue chupas with scarlet collars and cuffs, at some presidios they would be made of wool velvet while at others they were of wool cloth.  The shade of blue would vary from site to site and so would the weave and quality of the cloth.  At different times and places, soldiers’ chupas had lapels or didn’t.  The shape of the collar, lapels and cuffs; how the chupa was lined and with what; the number, placement, shape, and type of buttons would all differ from one presidio to another and over time.  And, of course, these differences would also extend to other parts of the uniform and equipment, including the breeches, waistcoats, capes, hats, leggings, sword belts and cartridge carriers, not to mention horse gear.


This is why I believe it’s important for artists, writers, film makers and historical reenactors who portray these frontier soldiers not to assume that there was one “generic” type of soldado de cuera uniform that was the same everywhere on the frontier and over long periods of time.  Instead, I suggest that we all need to dig deeper into the visual, written and archaeological sources to discover and reproduce as much as possible what was actually worn at a particular site during a definite era.

A. “Uniforme del Regimiento de la Corona, Nueva España,” 1769.  Archivo General de las Indias, Madrid.  Copy in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island.

B. “Proposed uniform for a Havana infantry regiment to be raised by Don José Fleming, 1787.”  Archivo General de las Indias, Madrid.  Copy in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island.

C. Detail from, “Uniforme de Soldado de Lanceros de Veracruz,” 1769.  Archivo General de las Indias, Madrid.  Copy in the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection, Brown University Library, Providence, Rhode Island.  Note that this is the longer chupa, not the shorter one prescribed by the 1772 regulations.  Because of the longer skirts, it even has small turnbacks at the tails.  This chupa also does not have lapels.

D. Detail of a uniform proposal for the Regimiento Provincial de Caballeria del Principe, c. 1771-1779. Real Academia de Historia, Madrid.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the authors of the Royal Regulations of 1771 probably had something much like this uniform and equipment in mind for the soldados de cuera, though without the lapels.

E. 1767 Map of San Ignacio de Tubac by José de Urrutia, from the Tumacacori National Historical Park website:  Original in the British Library, London.

F. Since the sleeved waistcoat known as the chupa belonged to an international style of tailoring, it's possible to compare images of Spanish uniforms with reconstructions of similar garments from other countries.  I believe that the chupa may have been cut something like this 1775 Massachusetts bounty coat though, as I’ve tried to show, there would have been variations.  Notice the similarities between it and the chupas worn in fig. C by the Lancero de Veracruz and by the Provincial cavalryman in fig. D.  Illustration from, “The Massachussets Bounty Coat of 1775,” by Henry Cooke IV, republished on the Arnold Expedition Historical Society website:

G. Archaeolical finds at presidio sites can be used to help recreate the particular uniforms worn at that site.  Seen here, a brass button recovered during an archaeological dig at Santa Barbara Presidio, California. Courtesy of Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation. See also some of the various shapes and sizes of Spanish military buttons available during this era at the website Military Artifacts from Spanish Colonial Florida and Louisiana, 1539-1821:

H. There was no “generic” soldado uniform.  Rather, each presidio’s interpretation of the 1772 regulations would have been somewhat different and also would have changed over time.  This is why, when portraying a soldado de cuera in art, words or as a reenactor, we must research the uniforms and equipment used at a particular site and during a specified era.  This is my interpretation of late-18th to early-19th century soldados de cuera from California and Texas based on eyewitness pictures, descriptions and archaeology.  From, René Chartrand and David Rickman, “Leather Jacket Soldiers: The Cuera Cavalry of the American South-West,” Military Illusrated, Past and Present, 54 (November 1992).   


[1] “The Royal Regulations of 1772, part 4 – Four More Words,” Sept. 13, 2014
[2] The original regulation reads:
“The clothing of the soldiers of the presidio will be the same for all, and consist of a
short, sleeved waiscoat of blue wool velvet or cloth, with a small scarlet cuff and collar. . .”
[El vestuario de los soldados de presidio ha de ser uniforme en todos, y constará de una chupa corta de tripe, ó paño azul, con una pequeña vuelta y collarin encarnado. . .].  Sidney Brinckerhoff and Odie B. Faulk, Lancers for the King; A Study of the Frontier Military System of Northern New Spain, with a Translation of the Royal Regulations of 1772 (Phoenix: Arizona Historical Society,1965), 18.
[4] [E]l adorno, que se sobrepone al puño de las camisas, que es una tira plegada, y ancha de lienzo delgado, ó encaxes ].  The Spanish Royal Academy dictionaries I cite may be found online at Nuevo Testoro Lexicográfico de la Lengua Española:
[5] Hugo Oconór, "Carta Expedida de resulta de la revista al S.or Comandante del Presidio de Tubac, No. 13. Presidio de Tubac. Aug. 16, 1775. Archivo General de las Inidas, Guadalajara, 515. Bancroft Library microfilm.  I am indebted to the late Don Garate, National Park Service, for sending me a copy of this document.
[6]El vestuario de que usa aquella Tropa es uniforme en todas las Provincias, y consista de una chupa corta de Tripe, ó Paño azul con una pequeña buelta, y collarin encarnado . . .” Hugo Oconór and Donald C. Cutter. The Defenses of Northern New Spain: Hugo O'Conor's Report to Teodoro de Croix, July 22, 1777 (Dallas: DeGolyer Library, 1994), iii, v, 54
[7]Companía de Caballería del Real Presidio de San Antonio de Bexar. Numero 24. Papel de Puntos Deducidos de la Revista . . . 1779,” ms. Archivo General de las Indias, Guadalajara, 283. I am indebted to my friend, the noted military historian René Chartrand, for sending me a copy of this document.
[8] Letter from Arguello to Borica, “Concerning the uniforms of the troopers, 17 December 1794,” ms., Bancroft Library, California Archives 7, Tomo XII, 143; “Requisition: Santa Barbara, March 7, 1795,” in Giorgio Perissinotto, ed., et al, Documenting Everyday Life in Early Spanish California; The Santa Barbara Presidio Memorias y Facturas, 1779-1810, (Santa Barbara, California: Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation, 1998), 244. Note, my translation differs slightly from the one given in this book.

[9] Moorhead, Max L. "The Private Contract System of Presidio Supply in Northern New Spain." The Hispanic American Historical Review 41, no. 1 (1961): 31-54.


  1. Salve David <
    Very interesting chain of articles on the Royal Regulations and reality of the Provincias Internas! Nota bene great blog - I greatly admire your work, the presidial troops et al -

  2. Great article, I have some of these illustrations but without the source on some, thanks!